Documents claim state prison chief interferred with council's audit

COLUMBIA -- The state's prison chief has interfered with an investigation prompted by allegations of lax security, inmate abuse and a politicized, hostile work environment, according to documents obtained by The State newspaper.

Letters sent to the state Department of Corrections by the Legislative Audit Council accuse Corrections director John Ozmint of tainting a planned survey of prison system employees.

In a newsletter and e-mail sent to Corrections employees in mid-June, Ozmint criticized the Audit Council's plan for a survey of prison system employees, calling it a "one-sided" attempt to blame administrators for the prison system's woes.

Subsequently, the Audit Council scrapped its plan to survey prison system employees, saying Ozmint's comments had rendered any results invalid.

The state prison system has been under scrutiny since last summer. That was when a state Senate panel began looking into allegations that included:

• Covering up the sexual assault of an employee;

• Using inmate labor and prison equipment for hunting and fishing trips; and

• The number of legal judgments against the agency, including a $600,000 award in an inmate-beating case.

Ozmint has denied any improprieties. However, the Senate decided to hand over the investigation to the Legislative Audit Council, the investigative arm of the General Assembly.

Lawmakers say the Audit Council's report is crucial to answering questions about how the prison system operates and spends its budget. But Ozmint says that polling prison system employees would not address the agency's largest problem: a lack of money.

"It is easy and tempting to blame your immediate superiors, your senior leadership or this agency for low pay, low staffing, crowded prisons and insufficient equipment," Ozmint wrote in a June 17 e-mail to prison system employees, telling them about the upcoming Audit Council survey. "However, all of those problems are controlled by lawmakers.

Ozmint's e-mail to prison staff and similar language in an employee newsletter prompted Legislative Audit Council director George Schroeder to cancel plans for the employee survey in a June 25 letter to Ozmint.

According to federal auditing standards, Schroeder wrote, "audit organizations must be free from external impairments to independence." Those impairments, according to the auditing standards, could be "actual or perceived" pressures from management or employees.

Lawmakers say the prison system needs to be more open about its operations.

State Rep. Rex Rice, R-Pickens, said he had not seen the letters between Corrections and the Audit Council. But, he added, the Audit Council has proved itself thorough and impartial.

"They need to cooperate with the Audit Council," said Rice, R-Pickens, one of the legislators who oversees the Audit Council. "It's a problem, yes."

Ozmint said he believes the Audit Council knew its proposed survey of prison system employees was flawed. Prisons are different from other workplaces, he said.

For example, asking prison guards if they feel safe at work surely will elicit different responses than from employees of the Department of Social Services, Ozmint argues.

Ozmint also contends the Audit Council's inquiry just is distracting attention from the prison system's financial woes.

South Carolina spends about $10,000 less per inmate than neighboring North Carolina or Georgia, Ozmint says.

Both Ozmint and Gov. Mark Sanford, Ozmint's boss, blame the prison system's deficit this year on chronic underfunding by the Legislature.

Some lawmakers say politics has played a role in the prison system's deficit. They say that Gov. Sanford's desire to limit state spending has prevented the prison system from asking the Legislature for the money it needs.

State Rep. Annette Young, the Dorchester Republican who heads the House corrections budget subcommittee, said Ozmint has been limited by Sanford.

"He'd (Ozmint) really ask for more, but because he was under the governor's administration, he can't," Young said.